Rig Veda: Indra and Varuna

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Rig Veda: Indra and Varuna

Post  Guest on Thu Feb 07, 2013 4:44 am

The Rig Vedic poets conceive of a term they call rita by which is apparently meant the 'cosmic order' or 'moral order'. (It seems the principle has an analogue in the 'Tao' of the Taoists.)This principle of cosmic-and-moral order is raised to the most exalted position by the Rig Vedic poets. Sample this:

The dawns arise in the morning according to the rita; the fathers have placed the sun in the heaven according to the rita; the sun is the bright countenance of the rita...the streams flow in obedience to the law of rita.

Like the Tao of the Taoists, the nearest etymological meaning of rita would probably be 'way' or 'order' meaning 'order of nature'. Further the Vedic Gods Mitra and Varuna (particularly the latter) are most strongly associated with this rita.

Varuna's power is so great that neither the birds as they fly nor the rivers as they flow, can reach the limit of his dominion, his might and his wrath (Rig Veda i.24.6)...He embraces the all and the abodes of all beings (viii.41.1 & 7). Varuna is omnisicent. He knows the flight of birds in the sky, the path of ships in the ocean, the course of the far-travelling wind, and beholds all the secret things that have been or shall be done (i.25.7; 9 & 11)....No creature can even wink without him (ii.28.6); The winking of men's eyes are all numbered by Varuna, and whatever man does, thinks, or devises, Varuna knows.

But why so much importance to Varuna? The Vedic poets clearly tell us the answer which is that he is the God (often along with Mitra) who is most strongly associated with the rita or in other words he is the custodian of the moral and cosmic order. He is referred to as ritasya gopa or the guardian of the rita.

In the later strata of the Rig Veda though Varuna seems to have lost its former glory and importance; and with the degradation of Varuna, the Vedic gods, generally lost all sense of morality. That is how they are depicted in the Brahmanas. A.B. Keith in 'Religion and Philosophy of the Veda and Upanisads' points out that the Brahmanas do not normally inculcate morality on even merely emperical grounds; he illustrates the point with a series of examples showing the selfishness, jealousy, envy and debauchery of the gods. But, adds Keith, these gods with all their vices appear to be 'comparatively virtuous people' by the side of Indra, as depicted in the Brahmanas (pg 470):

He makes a compact with Namuci and sets about to find a way of violating it, which he does with success; his murder of Visvarupa, son of Tvastri, is unmotivated and wicked...His amour with Ahalya is only accomplished by means of deceiving the lady by adopting the form of her husband, and he gave over to the hyenas certain ascetics, an impure act. His adultery is repaid in kind; for his own son, born of his thigh, Kutsa Aurava, takes advantage of his physical likeness, to win the favour of Saci Paulomni, his father's wife. But, after all, what could be more degrading than the pictures of him hungry and begging a priest for an offering, and then running about cake in hand, or bound by cords by Kutsa and urged by Lusa to break away from this degrading servitude? Even his own subjects, the Maruts, he plunders justifying the royal habit of accepting loot from the husbandmen.

And this was the god of the new era--the Indra who superseded the ancient Varuna. Writes Keith (pg 434):

With this decline of the great and noble God (Varuna) goes hand in hand the decline of the interest of Indian philosophy or religion in morality as such; though numerous are the moral precepts which can be found here and there in Vedic literature, it must be admitted that it is quite impossible to find any real or vital principle of ethics.

The decline of Varuna along with his rita also marked the beginnings of the hierarchial, distinctly class-divided society and the moral codes that followed were invariably tainted by the outlook and interests of such a society.(i have earlier written a post where a few Rig Vedic poet laments about the fall of the rita. A portion of it is reproduced at the end of this blog as an appendix.)

As Varuna was superseded by Indra, the ancient law of rita had to give place to the law of Karma. And this was how, as early as the Chandogya Upanisad, this law of karma was expounded to justify caste-rule and caste-exploitaton (Ch. Up. v.10.7):

Accordingly, those who are of pleasant conduct here--the prospect is, indeed, that they will enter a pleasant womb, either the womb of a brahmin or the womb of a kshatriya or the womb of a vaisya. But those who are of stinking conduct here--the prosepect is, indeed, that they will enter a stinking womb, either the womb of a dog, or the womb of a swine, or the womb of an outcaste (Chandala)

There is no doubt that during the entire period of subsequent Indian philosophical history, this law of Karma reigned supreme in whatever ethical views that were evolved.

I end this post with a comment on the verses of the poet Kutsa whom i have quoted in the appendix. Living as he did in the beginnings of the hierarchial society, he cursed the new order and asked for a revival of the ancient rita--'I utter this from my heart, let the rita be born anew' (vyurnoti hrida matin navyo jayatam ritam). What he asked for was impossible. Not even the mightiest spell of the Vedic poets could have reversed the laws of history. The primitive community life had to be broken, and it was broken.


Other poets did the same thing; one of them is Kutsa whose verses are compiled in the first book of the Rig Veda. We do not know his precise source of dissatisfaction, but the fact that he was a rebel is clear from the distinct tone of defiance in his compositions. Here is a sample (Rig Veda i.105):

I ask thee, O yajna, the ancient one (avaman)! Let his (i.e. yajna's) messenger speak with due consideration: Where is the rita of the past gone? Who is the new one (nutanah) that holds it? Know this of me, O Heaven and Earth....

All these gods, who are in the three spheres, where is the rita of yours gone? Where, again, the absence of rita? Where, as of old, are the yajna (ahutih) of ours? Know this of me, O Heaven and Earth...

We ask of Varuna, the knower of the path and the maker of food--I utter this from my heart, let the rita be born anew (vyurnoti hrida matin navyo jayatam ritam). Know this of me, O Heaven and Earth.

The language is clearly that of a rebel; and his curse on the new order is unambiguous. But what Kutsa was asking for was obviously impossible. Not even the mightiest spell of the Vedic poets could reverse the laws of history. The primitive community life had to be broken and, with the emergence of the hierarchial society, it was broken.



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